Search And Destroy

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The United States Army has always been secretive about its defense installations. In the summer of 1864 a breach of security took place on the tiny island fortress of Alcatraz that reverberated all the way back to the War Department in Washington.

Alcatraz Island, squatting in the middle of San Francisco Bay, is the twenty-two-acre cork in the mouth of the Golden Gate.

Beginning in 1853 the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers transformed the humpbacked islet into one of the country’s most heavily defended pieces of real estate. The fort continued to grow throughout the early Civil War years, until by the end of 1863 it mounted more than a hundred pieces of heavy artillery.

Early in 1864 Capt. William Winder, commanding the “Post on Alcatraz Island,” decided that it was time to have a permanent record made of his fortress. Approaching the San Francisco photography firm of Bradley and Rulofson, the captain offered to pay four hundred dollars in government greenbacks for a photographic survey of Alcatraz. Bradley and Rulofson replied that their costs would run at least fifteen hundred dollars. After some negotiating, it was agreed that the company would be allowed to make up the cost difference by selling sets of the photographs to the public.

In April Bradley and Rulofson sent their premier staff photographer out to Alcatraz. Acting under the personal direction of Captain Winder, he lugged his brassbound view camera to every nook and cranny of the island, eventually exposing two thousand negatives.

Upon completion of the work, two sets of prints were made: a partial set for presentation to Gen. Irvin McDowell, the newest commander of the Department of the Pacific, and a complete set of fifty “approved” views for Captain Winder’s staff to review before additional copies were made. Then Bradley and Rulofson printed a descriptive catalogue of their new Alcatraz series and began taking orders from the public.

 
 
The federal government so thoroughly confiscated these Civil War-era photographs that they didn’t resurface for a century and a quarter
 

At this time the fort on Alcatraz actually had a dual command structure, and Lt. George Elliot of the Corps of Engineers oversaw the work crews who labored at modernizing and expanding the island’s defenses. Elliot had been out of town when the photographs were made, but upon his return he was delighted, for he saw in the pictures an opportunity to document his most recent labors for his superiors in Washington.

Elliot sent off a glowing dispatch to Chief of Engineers Richard Delafield, on July 8, describing the newly taken photographs in vivid terms and including a pair of the pictures that depicted his current job, reinforcing the island’s batteries. “I have thought that you would be glad to obtain copies to illustrate the condition and the progress [of my work] …,” he wrote. He then proceeded to list all the pictures that had been taken. The photographer had been extremely thorough; the final commercial series contained images revealing in exhaustive detail every building and battery on the island.

Lieutenant Elliot’s happy report ignited a fire storm in Washington. The War Department couldn’t imagine anything more useful to Confederate spies. Upon receiving Elliot’s letter on August 1, Chief of Engineers Delafield immediately fired off a telegram informing the lieutenant in blunt language that all such photographs were to be “instantly suppressed.” That same day the Chief of Staff of the Army, Gen. Henry Halleck, sent off his own wire, containing a frightening directive: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had personally ordered the photographs seized.

Things moved quickly. Three days later the San Francisco Evening Bulletin ran a story under the headline FORT ALCATRAZ TAKEN !, which reported that at 4:00 P.M. on August 2 a party of armed soldiers had arrived at the Montgomery Street studios of Bradley and Rulofson. Brandishing orders from the War Department, the soldiers had seized all the photographs, negatives, and correspondence relating to the Alcatraz contract, including the name and address of every customer who had ordered a copy set.

On August 5 General McDowell was able to report to Halleck that “the provost-marshall-general has all the. negatives and all the copies, except those Elliot sent to the Engineer Department.” Unfortunately for Captain Winder, the incident was far from over; his personal loyalties were now being questioned. The fact that his father was a general in the Confederate Army, and commanded the South’s festering prisoner-of-war camps, did little to increase Winder’s credibility. In disgrace, he requested and received a transfer to the tiny artillery post at Point San Jose on the San Francisco waterfront.

The Bradley and Rulofson photographs are the earliest-known pictures taken on Alcatraz; six years would pass before a photographer would again be allowed there. In 1979 the historian Erwin Thompson lamented: “The destruction of the pictures must have been thorough; no copies of any of them have been found to date, in the National Archives or elsewhere. National security was preserved; but history was made the poorer.”